Dining Out in Affordable Luxury

Upscale dining has its place, but nowadays, even those restaurants are adapting with menus and dishes that appeal to a broader range of budgets. We checked in with three Northern Colorado restaurants—Center Stage at TPC Colorado, RARE Italian and Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar—to see how they’re meeting the needs of a growing list of price-conscious diners.

Center Stage – Berthoud

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the closure of 773 Prime, TPC’s fine dining restaurant, sent a strong message to the staff: Guests of the golf resort wanted high quality and bold flavors but with a range of price points. Soon after Executive Chef Omari Lewis arrived at Center Stage at the beginning of this year, he and his team took that to heart and brainstormed ideas for a new menu. Rather than easing into it, TPC’s food and beverage manager told him to “rip off the Band-Aid.”

“We did a hard 180-degree turn to create a more inclusive menu with various dishes and prices,” Lewis says.

The menu still has steaks and burgers, but it also bends toward customers who seek a healthier lifestyle. “We are, after all, at a golf resort,” Lewis says.

Tofu katsu, Center Stage

Lewis’ experience as an allergy chef at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., helped him cater to Coloradans who prefer plant-forward, vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free and dairy-free dishes. These types of dishes usually cost less than beef and game.

Still, Lewis questioned whether customers who weren’t vegetarian would go for a mushroom and spinach lasagna or a vegan, gluten-free tofu katsu with tamarind glaze and mint chutney sauce. This challenged him to create dishes that were favorable instead of obligatory.

“I made one batch of lasagna as an experiment, thinking I might have to finish eating it myself,” he says. “I never expected it to take off the way it has.”

Lewis says the tofu katsu, steepled on the plate like Boulder’s Flatirons, is also catching on. The new menu has changed the aesthetic of the restaurant as well as the prices.

“The term for it is ‘upscale casual,’” Lewis says. “It’s the kind of place where you can wear jeans, but the food is more upscale. It is a crossover of food and ambiance that fits Colorado well.”


Executive Chef, Nate Boothe preparing the margherita pizzetta, RARE Italian. Photo by Joni Schrantz.

Rare Italian – Fort Collins

When Collin McDowell became the general manager of RARE Italian in 2020, he was eager to return home and improve his family’s favorite Fort Collins restaurant. Rather than focusing solely on the kitchen, he and his executive chef, Nate Booth, also from Colorado, started a farm in Loveland.

They planted, watered and harvested good food for the restaurant, educating their staff and guests about the meaning of farm-to-table meals and the quality of their dry-aged beef and house-made pasta and cheeses.

“It’s an implied value that you can’t always put a price tag on, but it makes guests appreciate the experience,” he says. “The experience of high-quality, authentic food brings people back.”

When a restaurant emphasizes quality, the prices often get loftier. McDowell admits that the confluence of inflation and rising minimum wages is challenging. However, by shaving down costs on back-of-house, non-food items (like cling wrap), he avoids passing along higher prices to customers.

McDowell, who admits to liking economics, lights up when discussing prices and budgets, and he values honesty from his customers about both.

“I love prom night because the teens tell us right away exactly how much money they have,” he says. “When they tell us they have $100 to spend, it gives us a chance to give them a really delightful experience within their budget.”

That’s why RARE Italian, known for its expensive steaks, balances its menu with a variety of pizzettas, a dry-aged cheeseburger and a brick chicken served over a bed of black lentils, sautéed spinach and salsa verde. McDowell says the chefs will split any dish on the menu, even steaks, so don’t be shy about asking.

The lure sampler, Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar.

Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar – Fort Collins

Sheila Lucero, executive chef at Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar in downtown Fort Collins, says people are still eating out, but they’re making adjustments to save a few dollars.

“We often see our guests forego an appetizer, opt for a glass over a bottle of wine or order a more affordable entrée,” she says.

The challenge is offering the same high-quality ingredients and service of a fine dining experience without charging guests as much for it.

“This prompted us to continue menu innovation focusing on reasonably priced dishes with quality ingredients without the large price tag,” Lucero says.

One way Jax meets the demand is by offering one of the best happy hours in the area. It runs seven days a week from 3:30-5 p.m. and from 3:30 p.m. to close on Mondays. The menu includes their proprietary CrackerJax oysters ($2 each), a cup of gumbo ($7), steamed mussels ($9), a fish sandwich ($12) and other tasty fare. The happy hour drink menu features cocktails for $8 and under, $8 wine and $1 off beer.

“It’s an excellent chance for budget-conscious guests to have a true Jax experience,” Lucero says.